The privilege and responsibility of the voting booth

Oct 27, 2008 at 9:42 a.m. ET

Several years ago, I forgot it was my town's election day. I'd known it was coming. I had it on the calendar. But on the day itself, amid all the household tasks, I forgot. When I did remember, there were just 15 minutes until the polls closed, so I quickly headed out, hoping I'd made it in time.

Polling Place SignI did make it in time, and had one of the best lessons on democracy in my life (and that is saying a lot given I grew up in a very political family). A woman I know won her seat to a local office by three votes. Three. My vote most definitely mattered. I was one of those three votes, and it was cast in the last five minutes of voting. Wow.

Beyond the hype

Amid all the hype and the advertising and hubbub of a national election, it can be easy to forget that the success of our democracy depends on the participation of each and every one of us - regardless of who wins. It is not just a privilege to participate in elections like this, it's a civic responsibility. And it's a responsibility I am excited to exercise. I am looking forward to election day as much because this crazy election season finally will be over as for my hope for the actual result.

Some people like to say, "If you don't vote, don't complain," and while there's a grain of truth to that, it's too glib a line for me. I just feel proud when I look at the vote totals on election night - sometimes on the winning side and sometimes on the losing side - and know one of them is me. I was counted.

Involve the kids, go early

A friend of mine recalls a cold, snowy early November in northern Vermont tromping through the white with her mother to get to the polls; another recalls looking up at the levers on the voting machine and just being able to reach them when she stood on her tippy toes. Just as my parents took me with them when they voted, I take my kids. They know how the process works. We make our way to the school gymnasium, find the line for our precinct, give our address first at the first table, then my name, get the ballot, go to one of the little booths, start filling in bubbles, go to the next table with the completed ballot, give our address and my name again, then slide the ballot into the electronic box. Done. Ten minutes, tops.

I know, not all voting is that easy and straightforward (although it should be). I plan my time to vote. I put it in my calendar for first thing in the morning, just as I plan the rest of my day - but the voting comes first to make sure it really does happen and there are no other impediments or delays. When we lived in another state in 2000, I had to wait in line a good long time to vote. While I remember feeling a bit impatient, there was no thought that I would abandon the line. Again, my sense of responsibility took over. I read a book in line, and made it through soon enough. Most states (though not all) have laws that require them to allow employees time to vote, so you might want to check in yours. In short, there is no excuse not to vote.

It wasn't always like this

My grandmother was born in 1901. When she turned 18, she did not register to vote. Not because she didn't want to, but because women were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920. While my grandmother and I never talked about this explicitly, her actions spoke very loudly to me. She took her right to vote very seriously, and never missed an election day - very possibly because she remembered a time when she would not have been allowed to vote. Her mother - my great grandmother - died before women's suffrage and never had the privilege of voting. I think about them when I vote, and I remember to never take this privilege for granted.

Election Day is an opportunity for us to truly be a part of the democratic process. So get out there. Vote. Be counted.

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